Commentary: A local climate-change laboratory
If you were looking for a place to contemplate global climate change in a microcosm — climate change writ small — you could do worse than to consider my humble corner of the world.
In some respects, this area is a laboratory for the competing climate and energy tensions that are developing worldwide, pointing toward catastrophes that appear to be more or less inevitable.
I drive often through the heart of this laboratory. At one end of the trip, the city of Corpus Christi, Texas, and its 300,000 residents sit on flat land a few feet above the sea. At the other, Georgetown, 30 miles north of Austin, is the county seat of Williamson County, on the edge of the Texas hill country.
Corpus Christi is in hurricane country, where the stronger storm surges predicted by climate warming models could combine with an already rising sea level to produce disastrous flooding. Williamson County, according to Forbes magazine the fastest-growing county in the U.S., is trying to find ways to accommodate its lush green lawns and golf courses to a rapidly dwindling water supply.
In between these two poles sits the Eagle Ford shale, a vast repository of previously unattainable oil and gas. Every trip between Corpus Christi and Georgetown reveals new drilling rigs dotting the countryside, more hydrocarbon infrastructure, and more trucks hauling millions of gallons of water to fracking sites.
Numbers indicate the competing interests: Due to the current drought, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has designated 240 of Texas’ 254 counties as “primary natural disaster areas.”
And the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality reports that at least 48 cities are within 180 days of water exhaustion.
Of course, drought is nothing new in Texas and in much of the West. The historic drought of the 1950s is still alive in the memories of many Texans, and according to the National Weather Service, 2011 was the driest year on record. The comptroller’s office reported agricultural losses of at least $9 billion.
But other numbers have changed, as well. Reflecting our population’s tendency to move toward areas that are warm and sunny — and dry — according to Forbes magazine between 2000 and 2012, Austin grew by 45 percent, the second-fastest rate during that timeframe. Runners-up were Houston (8th), San Antonio (9th), and Dallas/Fort Worth (10th). Predictably, others in the top ten include Las Vegas, Riverside/San Bernardino and Phoenix.
And while fracking in the Eagle Ford shale has been an enormous boon to the economy of south Texas, it requires enormous amounts of water, somewhere between 2 million and 8 million gallons per well.
Increased fracking involves other liabilities, as well. In June, a Dallas County jury awarded a Plano, Texas, couple $3 million for health problems — nausea, nosebleeds, rashes, breathing difficulties — associated with oil and gas operations near their ranch in Wise County. And then there are the fracking-induced earthquakes.
There’s much more, but the short version is that climate conditions in south Texas reflect those worldwide: The global population passed 7 billion recently and will push harder and harder against earth’s finite resources, inevitably compromising the climate.
What does the future hold for south Texas and, by implication, what can the world look forward to?
In 2008, Dr. James Norwine and Dr. Kuruvilla John, research scientists at Texas A&M University at Kingsville, Texas, produced “The Changing Climate of South Texas 1900-2100.” Norwine, John, and the 16 other scientists who contributed to the volume rely on extensive data to project south Texas weather over the next 100 years.
According to their study, we can expect warmer temperatures, higher sea levels, water shortages and weather extremes, including stronger hurricanes, droughts and heat waves. The confluence of these conditions will sometimes produce “megadisasters.”
During the next 100 years south Texas will suffer from the “climate creep” documented by other scientists. Its climate will resemble that currently 100 miles to the southwest, considerably hotter and drier.
Similar changes are happening everywhere. Two things that haven’t changed are our capacity for denial and our unwillingness to confront impending catastrophe.